Yeah, sure, fine, there are a lot of great new games out right now. But for some reason, Persona 3 has captured the hearts and minds of not one but two Kotaku editors: Me (Kirk) and our resident JRPG expert Jason Schreier. We've been talking about the game pretty much every day, most likely to the detriment of our other work. So, we decided that we'd do a 2-player chat about what we've seen so far and open up the discussion.
If you've got a PSP or a Vita, you could certainly do worse than to download the game and give it a run—or heck, if you're really hardcore, you can now download the FES version of the original game to play on PS3. Take it from me, you won't find a better high school-based demon-fighting JRPG/Dating-sim anywhere.
So. What makes Persona 3 so stressful yet compelling? Why do we like having video game characters tell us what to do, especially if they have red hair? How much freedom is too much freedom? Isn't Kenji just the worst?
Jason: I am really enjoying Persona 3. But it makes me anxious. Every day I have so many options and every time I pick one I feel like I'm missing out on thousands of other scenes and possibilities and sexy ramen dinners with Kenji.
Kirk: I remember the first time I decided to hang out with Kenji after school, we went to get ramen, and he started telling me stuff about girls, and then whoops! It was the end of the day. Time to go home! By the way, I can't fucking stand Kenji.
Jason: Yeah, he's the worst. His facial expressions! I want to punch him in the head. Or take him to Tartarus and show him what real angst is.
Kirk: It gets worse, too. You'll see. I invested a troubling number of hours in building a social link with him, and it feels like a wasted investment since every time he calls me up, I want to tell him to go jump off a cliff.
Wait, let's back up. I'm farther in this game than you are, yeah?
Jason: I'm in late June right now. I just met this adorable dog who I assume will later become a party member because that would be weird and this game is all like "I want to be weird."
Kirk: Koro-chan! I have no comment as to whether or not your theory holds water. So I'm in early October, I just passed my birthday, I've put in about 40-odd hours and am on floor 150 or so in Tartarus. I'm getting the sense that I'm not actually all that close to the end, despite what the story keeps telling me!
What's nice is that New Game + lets you carry over a lot of the stuff you've accumulated while playing the opposite gender, so you don't have to re-build your social stats or social links. So, you can relax some of that anxiety you're feeling! All you have to do to see everything is sink another 100-ish hours into the game.
Jason: Oh, Kirk-senpai. Who has time for New Game + these days?
Kirk: Who indeed.
Which kind of brings us to that familiar RPG anxiety. I feel it too, in this game, though it's more mechanical—am I investing in the right social links? Is it smart to try to raise courage, academics, and charm? Should I focus on one? Which class of persona is the best? Etc.
Jason: So what I think is particularly clever about Persona 3 is that the game never feels like it's going to screw you over if you make the wrong decision. Like, if I hang out with my online girlfriend all day instead of studying, it won't really matter that much in the long run.
Kirk: That's true, at least in terms of the story, from what I've seen. The larger arcs aren't affected like they are in, say, Mass Effect.
Jason: Unlike real life, where I have to find the right balance between my online girlfriend, my Kenpo Club, and the old couple I hang out with at the bookstore.
"In Skyrim, for example, the passage of time isn't that big a deal."
Kirk: Ha! What's funny is, Persona 3 still has that feeling for me, where I'm making constant decisions, since time is actually passing. I like how the game is on a calendar, and it actually feels like it's on a calendar. In Skyrim, for example, the passage of time isn't that big a deal. If I want to wait a week to do something, I can literally just press buttons and wait an entire week in one place. In Persona, that's not an option—you need to account for your time, because it's finite.
It's stressful, but for some reason I really like it. Partly because it does feel a bit like real life! But in a structured, more simple way. It really does make me miss when I was in school. (As I've written before.)
Jason: Yeah, there's something nice about only having to make decisions within the rigid constraints of a structure. As opposed to being told "go out and do whatever you feel like doing in this giant world where you can go anywhere and do anything."
But that structure can lead to some frustrating moments where you feel like you've wasted your limited time for no real reason. Like the other day, I went to Student Council and got some bullshit message like "You had fun at Student Council!" and then suddenly the day ended.
Kirk: That is the worst! Oh man. That infuriates me. Especially when it happens with STUPID FUCKING KENJI. "You and Kenji hung out. You had fun! You can tell your bond will grow stronger soon."
[THROWS VITA INTO WALL]
Jason: Vita! Fancy!
Kirk: Yeah, I'm playing it on my fancy Vita. My Vita is basically a PSP JRPG machine.
Jason: I wonder what percentage of Vita owners are using it exclusively to play PSP games. I'd guess 80%.
Let's switch gears a little bit. You've written a lot about the rhythm of videogames—how every game has its own beats, its own flow, its own harmonies. Persona 3 has a unique, striking rhythm.
Kirk: I agree. I also like how the shouts in combat work in tandem with the music (which I've also talked about at length). My MC is all "Oberon!" and the singer is all "OOH YEAH!" and it's so awesome.
Jason: The obvious structure is there, of course, but even on a microcosmic level, there are little moments that just feel musical. Like the clock striking midnight whenever you enter the Dark Hour.
Kirk: Five ticks. Then... bang! I love that animation.
Jason: In some ways, that clock animation is kind of annoying. You see it so many times! But it's also kinda necessary, don't you think?
Kirk: Yeah. For lack of a better term, it feels very Japanese, doesn't it? That repetition. I don't want to get too sidetracked into talking about what puts the J in a JRPG. But it's a very distinctive thing, that clock.
Jason: Right, Japanese game designers have the tendency to add these quirky cues that can feel very repetitive to Western gamers. Like in Zelda, how you see "You found a Red Rupee! It's worth 20 rupees!" over and over and over until you get pissed off and kill a bunch of chickens. That Persona clock cue is one good example. There are also the Social Link cues.
Kirk: Yeah. And while it's "annoying" or whatever, it also contributes to that rhythm that gives the game its peculiar momentum.
Jason: And even that silly animation that plays whenever your party does that Team Up thing.
Kirk: I love that animation! I love when Junpei says "You son of a!"
Jason: "Couldn't finish him!"
Jason: Junpei's voice actor is GREAT.
Kirk: Agree. Several of the actors are great; several others... not so much. But I really love listening to Junpei. I'll have to look up the actor's name before we run this. (And so I did. Junpei is voiced by an actor named Vic Mignogna.)
Jason: It's funny that you mention "Oberon" because that's who I'm using now too.
Kirk: Yeah, I wonder how many people follow similar paths with Personas. Which kind of comes back to what we started out talking about: That anxiety that I'm missing things, or playing it "wrong."
And those are so helpful, since at the start of a big RPG, either Western or Japanese, I tend to feel a bit paralyzed. I still feel that way when it comes to fusing personas, though I've started giving less of a fuck and just going for it.
Jason: When I was a kid, I used to buy a lot of strategy guides for RPGs. And I'd use them not because I found games particularly difficult, but because I just wanted to be told what to do. It's interesting, because games always have marketing plans with buzzword promises like "unprecedented levels of freedom!"
Kirk: But sometimes freedom can be paralyzing!
Jason: Right, a lot of the time you just want somebody giving you orders. Maybe that's why Mitsuru is so hot.
Kirk: Yes. I do think that's why Mitsuru is so hot. Also because she is a ROCKIN BABE.
…Erm. Anyway. Yeah, I know what you mean.
So when I figured out a good party, it was a relief to know that I could stick with them throughout the whole game. Since just like in Persona 3, time is a precious commodity! I don't have time to go back through Tartarus leveling up some character that it turns out I really need.
Jason: Except when Yukari has to study. Or when Junpei goes out for burgers. Or when Mitsuru is off being amazing.
Kirk: Running a multinational corporation or something.
Moonlighting as a high-fashion model while fighting crime.
Teaching a combination bartending/ballroom dancing class.
Um... like, working on her second book about vintage motorcycles.
Jason: Showing the world how to find true love through the power of song.
Kirk: Haha you know she's one of those in-command girls who has a lovely singing voice that only comes out when she's been drinking.
I even like it when she says "please." Okay, Mitsuru! Since you asked nicely.
...Okay, this is going to get weird, I can tell. Or I should say, weirder.
Jason: One more thing I want to discuss before we finish up. So Persona is super successful both commercially and critically. And it's also super Japanese, which is something that a lot of Japanese games have tried to avoid. A lot of Japanese games are afraid that they'll alienate Western players if they're too wacky and full of Eastern references.
Why do you think it works so well for Persona?
Kirk: I think it's because it's "Japanese" in that it actually takes place in Japan, in real places in the modern day. Sometimes when people say a game is "really Japanese" they mean that it's wild creatively, like say, Bayonetta or Metal Gear. But while Persona has its flourishes like that, it spends half its time being remarkably down-to-earth. It's really just a story about people in a place facing challenges together, and a place that many in the west haven't ever visited and want to know more about.
Jason: But the people are far wackier than you might see in, say, a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Quest. Not that those RPG series don't have silliness, but they could never get away with somebody like Kenji or the Gourmet.
"I wonder if Joss Whedon has played Persona 3. I bet he'd love it."
Kirk: Sure, but the real-world setting does a lot to make the game feel grounded, despite the story's more fantastical elements.
Jason: Just the fact that it feels like it could actually happen.
Jason: It's very Buffyish, don't you think?
Jason: I wonder if Joss Whedon has played Persona 3. I bet he'd love it.
Kirk: I bet he would.
Jason: He'd definitely pick the girl. And he'd definitely try to kill everyone off.
Kirk: Spoilers! Though I bet he would, the heartless bastard. I've said so many times that Persona 3 is as close to a true Buffy game as we've ever gotten.
I've generally pitched Persona 3 as: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Surviving High School with a hardcore JRPG backend."
Then with the subtitle: "aka pretty much my ultimate game ever."
Jason: aka BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY BABY
Kirk: OOH YEAH! DA DA DA DA DAAA DA DA DA DA DAAA
[Both writers theoretically start dancing at their respective keyboards like total dorks.]
Kirk: And with that, I say we wrap it up. Final thoughts on your early goings in the game?
Jason: I'm sitting here in the office and all I can think is that my life is kind of like Persona 3 except instead of spending my nights exploring Tartarus, I spend them playing Persona 3. I can't wait to keep playing. Too bad it's like 4002342385489325 hours long and will take over my life for the next month. But oh well.
Kirk: Yeah, as someone who has been playing for the last month, I can say that it's worth letting it take over your life a bit. Let's check back in once we're both farther along!
Jason: Let's do it!
P.S. I think I might take out my PSP and get my Tartarus on right now. Don't tell Totilo.
Kirk: He won't hear it from me. I can't promise he won't read this, though.
(Mitsuru silhouette image via The Mecha Fetus Visublog)